Editor’s note: This commentary was written prior to Chris Austin’s awareness of the hit-and-run death of islander Philip Cushman last week, and then adapted in response to it. Austin writes with great humor, as always, but his subject here could not be more serious.
Lately, I’ve been hearing the siren song of “Back to School” commercials and it reminds me that it’s time for the annual migration back to the halls of education.
It takes me back to all those “Xs” that had to be solved for, the great people history still remembers but I can’t recall and, of course, the Byzantine rules of grammar that had me emptying my wallet into the swear jar. I still think a “dangling participle” is something a doctor should look at.
Some of my fondest memories of the school year were the walk home. It was my time — a time between the Charles Dickens-inspired rules at school and the Mussolini Guide to Parenting at home.
I have seen many a pupil walking home from school along Vashon Highway and one thing has always struck me as unnerving — the number of children walking with the flow of traffic. They tend to be in clots of three or four people strolling oh so close to the traffic lane — turning their backs to the risks hurtling toward them.
But even when practicing common sense along the road, pedestrian and vehicle tragedies have visited our home twice this year.
I have lived in several parts of the country and when I moved here I was struck by this curious phenomenon — the percentage of people walking with traffic instead of against it. Maybe I am just more aware of it because I have experience on both sides of this issue — both hitting someone, and being hit.
As hitter: In the 1980s, I was driving through Memphis, Tennessee, on my way to Nashville. Behind the wheel of my truck in the downtown area, a man darted out between two parked cars in the middle of the block. I’ll never forget his Heisman Trophy pose as he went flying off my hood. He slid to a stop in the turning lane some 20 feet away, sans shoes.
After a flurry of EMTs, bystanders and statements to police, I was free to continue my trip and it was a troubled one. Although I was exonerated by witnesses and my truck’s skid marks, I experienced a flood of guilt, anxiety and remorse. When I reached my destination I called his place of work to see how he was doing and was relieved to hear, “Oh yeah, he’s right here, do you want to talk to him?”
It turns out he ran into traffic because he was late for work and under the influence of some recreational drug. While this incident turned out fine for both of us, it left me with an uneasy question. What if I had really injured this man, disfigured, paralyzed or worse?
As Hittee: I received the business end of a bumper while on my year-long, solo, bicycle tour across the United States and Canada.
I was pedaling through Tennessee on my way to visit my sister. A driver behind me was trying to find a different song on the radio, drifted off the road and hit me at fifty miles an hour. I know this because he stopped and told the gathered crowd what had happened — lucky me.
The impact caused me to fly off my saddle, the back of my helmet pierced his windshield and I continued to do a flip over the entire vehicle. If I could have stuck the landing I would have been okay, but I pancaked, and broke a bunch of stuff. Simone Biles I am not.
Bike tours like this have always restored my faith in humanity, and this time was no exception. People I had never seen before held my hand in the ER, visited me in the hospital and even kept in touch when I returned to my journey.
Yet, being in the buckle of the Bible Belt, there was a lot of “God has a plan for you.” “The grace of God saved you.” I thanked them for their concern but I couldn’t help thinking to myself that if God had put a better song on the radio all of this could have been avoided.
After several months of convalescence, I wrote a handful of thank you cards and delivered them in person to the many good Samaritans. One card was for members of the police department, who had been kind and helpful. I approached the front-desk person and told her my situation.
“Oh, you’re the biker guy,” she said in a smooth drawl.
“Yes ma’am,” I replied, remembering my Southern manners.
“We got the call and thought you were DRT.”
I wrinkled my brow in confusion, “DRT?”
“Dead right there.”
It really didn’t hit me until someone said it out loud.
Some version of this incident will happen again, 100% chance.
All it takes is a driver answering a text, spilling hot coffee or wrangling an unruly pet.
It will be sudden, catastrophic and absolutely silent. Silent until you hear a sound you cannot unhear. If you survive, you will never forget it. If you don’t survive, your friends and family will never forget it.
Yet, I don’t want to be the harbinger of bad tidings. By all means, walk home from school. Enjoy the leisurely pace, the clement weather and the easy camaraderie, just do it facing traffic.
Chris Austin is a Voice of Vashon radio host and writer, and a stalwart volunteer at Vashon Heritage Museum. Over the years, he has authored many commentaries for The Beachcomber.